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ASU Football: Offensive line puts struggles in rearview ahead of San Diego State

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Back to basics

New Mexico State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the biggest challenges the Arizona State Sun Devils faced in 2016 was protecting the quarterback. One game into 2017, things didn’t look any better, despite picking up a win.

Redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins was left battered and bruised, as he was sacked seven times by New Mexico State last Thursday in ASU’s season-opener. In all, 13 of Arizona State’s plays sent the Sun Devils backward and another 10 went for no gain.

With nearly 30 percent of ASU’s snaps failing to produce a positive outcome, many were left wondering what happened, especially against a team that went 3-9 a year ago in the Sun Belt Conference, a league not exactly known for its firepower.

Head coach Todd Graham said New Mexico State mixed things up with second-year defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani that the Sun Devils hadn’t seen on film from them, creating confusion. But the issues stem deeper than that.

“A lot of the stuff was just fundamental technique and protections,” Graham said Sunday.

Redshirt junior Quinn Bailey said that the offensive line took a step back to analyze its issues against the Aggies and called the mistakes up front “correctable.”

“We just focused on fixing the little mistakes we made last week, fixing the things we can control,” Bailey said.

Part of the things the line can control is communication across the front and being on the same page against the blitz-happy Aztec defense.

With so much deception in Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 scheme, the Aztecs have caused problems for opponents, especially when it comes to protecting the ball. Intercepting 23 passes in 2016, San Diego State has mastered the art of forcing offenses into bad decisions, resulting in less than 200 yards per game through the air against them in each of the past two seasons.

One of Wilkins’s strengths is his ability to avoid catastrophic plays, but another poor performance up front could lead to forced passes and big plays going the opposite way.

Coming from the same defensive school of going after the football at all cost, Graham studied Long’s schemes and tactics since his time at West Virginia, making him very familiar with how the Aztecs will likely defend the Sun Devils.

“Basically attacking every down,” Graham said. “They’re going to create negatives... Their whole deal is forcing errors and it’s a very complex deal, but it’s all about creating negatives.”

Both Bailey and senior center A.J. McCollum noted that having Graham on their side has helped the offense prepare for the different looks presented by San Diego State, potentially giving ASU an edge compared to other Aztec opponents offensively.

“Going against our defense all fall camp has been our best preparation for a team like San Diego State,” McCollum said. “We don’t get a lot of exotic blitzes like we do with our defense.”

The Aztec defensive script is written much like the one that Graham’s teams ideally follow, especially creating turnovers. This mirror imagery has helped the ASU offense prepare for what it will see Saturday night.

At the end of the day, McCollum believes that as long as the Sun Devils do what they’re supposed to do, the rest will work itself out for the line.

“They’re going to have a lot of games,” McCollum said. “They have pretty much everything you can think of, but as long as we stick to our pass protection rules, we shouldn’t have a problem.”